OPINION: This article contains commentary which reflects the author's opinion
The U.S. Capitol Police will use surveillance equipment provided by the U.S. Army to monitor Americans as part of a massive effort to improve security and transform the Capitol Police force into “an intelligence-based protective agency” following the Jan. 6 riot in Washington D.C.
The USCP was given control over eight Persistent Surveillance Systems Ground – Medium (PSSG-M) units after a request to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was approved on June 2.
The state-of-the-art surveillance units will provide the USCP with high-definition surveillance capacity.
The same technology has been used during the war in Afghanistan to observe large areas at all hours of the day.
The USCP described the technology as “state-of-the-art campus surveillance technology, which will enhance the ability to detect and monitor threat activity,” per a statement last week.
The Army will install the units and will train USCP personnel or authorized contractors to operate the systems. Except for required maintenance of the systems, no DoD personnel will operate the PSSG-M units,” said the Department of Defense in a statement.
“The PSSG-M provides high-definition surveillance video, including night vision. This technology will be integrated with existing USCP camera infrastructure, providing greater high-definition surveillance capacity to meet steady-state mission requirements and help identify emerging threats. The PSSG-M system does not include facial recognition.”
Efforts by the Capitol Police to ramp up its presence throughout the United States have raised concerns over the privacy rights of Americans who now face the threat of nationwide surveillance.
In June, a federal appeals court found that the use of similar technology by the Baltimore Police Department violated the constitution’s Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure.
The technology’s use in Baltimore, known as Aerial Investigation Research, was owned by a private company and privately funded. It enabled the police department to capture up to 12 hours of footage every day.
As detailed in the Washington Times, its application in wartime environments calls for the installation of persistent surveillance units mounted on tethered blimps.
“The data could be stored, combined with sensor data from other platforms, and later referenced or rewound to track individuals or groups,” the publication reported.
The military could use the system to develop ‘pattern of life’ analyses on suspected enemy combatants or intelligence targets in war zones. It could determine, for example, who was responsible for placing an improvised explosive device.
The Department of Homeland Security has leased the same or similar technology, described as Persistent Ground Surveillance System(s) (PGSS), through the Department of Defense, according to a 2016 Government Accountability Office report. It is not clear whether any other agency has fielded the exact technology domestically.
Speaking to the Washington Times, Capitol Police provided few specifics on how they plan to use the surveillance technology and did not say whether the data they capture will be stored or disseminated, or whether the system will only be used for real-time observation.
“Hopefully, you can understand it wouldn’t be smart of us tell the world all our capabilities,” a Capitol Police official told The Times.
Unlike other agencies, the Capitol Police is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act because it is an agency of the legislative branch, raising concerns that the technology could very well be misused.
“These so-called improvements that the Capitol Police have implemented after the insurrection represent an expansion of police power and surveillance that STOP cautioned against in January,” said William Owen of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project in an interview with the Times.
“As awful as the events on Jan. 6 were, increased use of biased surveillance technology is never the answer,” he said. “Such technology will inevitably be used to target Black, brown, and Muslim communities and protesters, not White, racist, far-right mobs like those who were given free rein to enter the Capitol. So we need greater civilian oversight of police, not greater police power.”